Conformity Begins on the Playground

Conformity Begins on the Playground

Written by Emilie

Topics: Confidence, Featured

I was a weird kid. Instead of playing tag at recess or gossiping with the other girls, I used to play with my imaginary friends and go on adventures. There were puppies who asked me to adopt them and friendly vampires who taught me how to fly (Do vampires fly? I know some of them wear capes)…

One day in fourth grade, the other kids saw me playing alone and invited me to join their game of tag. They clearly misread my independence as loneliness and felt sorry for me. But I naturally declined. I was having way more fun on my own.

They kept asking me to join in, day after day. I wasn’t sure why. Most of these kids were otherwise pretty cruel to me and it didn’t seem like they had any interest in actually including me in anything. It was more like my desire to do my own thing bothered them in some way. They didn’t understand it. But I had no interest in their games of tag and soccer, and so I continued to play in my imaginary world.

As we Grow Up, we are Taught to Hide Ourselves

As you might expect, this rejection of their invitations to play did not make me very popular. I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong or why the other kids didn’t like me. (Just a side note- I did have a handful of other ‘reject’ friends who also didn’t care about fitting in. I think they may have been drawn to me actually)…

After a while, the teasing started getting to me. The comments about my velcro shoes and rainbow leggings, the soccer balls aimed at my head in gym class, the snickers when a group photo would come back and one of the kids had been standing in the way so that my face was blocked in the picture.

Slowly I learned that it’s better to be silent and fit in.

Blending In Will Destroy Your Life

I told this story because I wanted to illustrate something- that from a young age, we are taught by our peers that standing out invites ridicule, or at the very least misunderstanding. This desire to be ‘normal’ only intensifies in high school. (Though thankfully in grade 9 I transferred to a small alternative school with other really smart non-conformers and that was a godsend!)

What I realized as I got older is that it wasn’t just me. No, not everyone was bullied in elementary school, but most of us have had this same message drilled into our heads over time anyway. We picked it up in the culture.

As a result, most of us are terrified of standing out and claiming our place in the world. People will do what is expected of them. They will go to college because they should and work 9-5 at jobs that bore them, all to avoid having to reveal that part of themselves that might be a little different from everybody else. We are so afraid of being different.

But slowly, a sort of quiet desperation will take hold. They’ll start to hate their lives and wonder what the point of it all is. They will have wasted years working unsatisfying jobs, telling themselves they had to ‘be practical’. All those dreams they had when they were kids and all those things they wanted to do with their lives? Ridiculous impractical fantasies and not the way you’re supposed to behave- like the kid who plays with vampires on the playground.

Show Yourself

The only way out of this dreary existence is to embrace those things that make you different and unique. True fulfillment comes not only from being yourself, but from showing yourself to the world. Feature your eccentricities and your passions and be unapologetic about it. Recapture who you were as a kid, long before society began its crusade to make you feel bad about just being you.

I will end with this little gem that popped up on my Twitter feed a few weeks ago. I love this.

Your success is directly entwined with how much you embrace your true nature.

Everett Bogue


  1. Colleen says:

    Great post, Em! Love the picture :)

  2. Nania says:

    :)showing hey.

  3. Alison says:

    An intensely personal post deserves an intensely personal comment.

    Your story really resonates with me, Emilie. I, too, was on the fringes in my school. And I was stuck with the same 90 kids for 12 years! We were all pigeon-holed in first grade and that was it for the remainder of our pre-university careers.

    There was a point at the beginning of 5th grade when the group of girls who had been my friends approached me on the playground one day at recess to tell me that I was out of the group.

    I was shattered. And for a time completely lost and lonesome. But the experience forced me to go inside, get resourceful and explore my imagination. I was happy to doodle, make up stories, write, explore fledgling entrepreneurial endeavors, dream big dreams and live multiple other-lives in my own noodle. As devastating a blow as it was at the time, I now I realize that it was a catalyst for me and at that very second I began to design my own life.

    Looking back, I’m thankful for that. My entire, lengthy schoolyard experience was a training ground for bucking the “system” – a system that’s let plenty of people down as adults. I’m doing exactly what I love to do and calling every single shot that involves my life.

    And it all began on that playground.

    Keep the great posts coming : )

    • Emilie says:

      Hi Alison,

      I can totally relate to your story. Kids can be brutal. It’s tempting, even now, to blame them for my issues. I actually still run into them from time to time. Some are just as boring and judgmental as they were back then. And to be honest, I usually take off in the opposite direction when I see them.

      But thankfully those moments are very rare.

      Like you said, I wouldn’t be who I am today if I hadn’t had so much to overcome! So for that, I’m very thankful.

      Thanks so much for sharing.

  4. Erin says:

    Really great!

  5. Rob says:

    I know exactly what you mean. Though when I was younger I was UBER shy. More than anything I just wanted to fit in. I didn’t feel I belonged, but I just wanted to be Mr Joe Average.

    Now I realise my values haven’t changed. I’ve a lot more confidence, but I will never force myself into a mould like I did back then. I love the philosophies I have and the ideas I try to live by.

    But since relatively few people share those thoughts, it merely means I’ll have to try harder to find and meet like-minded people, which is incredibly hard to do now I’m back in this small town, but I’m looking to move out asap, and get on the hunt for kindred spirits who don’t mind do be the ‘outsiders’.

    • Emilie says:

      Isn’t it so crazy how we all wanted desperately to be average?? It’s nuts.

      Funny you should mention that about your values being the same as they were. I feel like a lot of this process of developing your confidence and embracing your true nature is really a process of getting back to who you were as a kid, before all the bullshit. It’s like that little kid was the ‘authentic you’ or something.

      I hear ya about the location stuff. What’s cool is how many of us there are online though. There’s such a fantastic community of bloggers who are really passionate about these ideas. Definitely looking forward to the day when I meet some of them in person though.

  6. Andrew Wells says:

    Hi Emilie
    Saw your sitelink in the IBM academy and came to check it out.
    Wow, it looks like you are really taking actions and making things happen.
    Congrats on the site and see you in the academy sometime soon.

    • Emilie says:

      Hey Andrew,

      Thanks for swinging by. The IBM Academy is great- I think the best thing about it isn’t even all the solid information, it’s the inspiration and community. And I’ll tell ya, once you see the snowball start rolling, it’s the most exciting feeling in the world.

      See you inside the academy. :)

  7. I experienced a lot of the same feelings when I was in college of all places. I could never really fit in. I’m not entirely sure why.
    I ended up turning into a workaholic/studyaholic. I was running a production company and taking 21 hours of class a quarter. It wasn’t until I moved out west that I felt at home. Portland is full of weird independent people.
    I believe now with the birth of the ‘social web’ it’s a lot easier to find and appreciate uniqueness. We are just on the forefront. Just think of the kind of social world our kids will experience.

    Great Post!

    • Emilie says:

      You’re right. It’s not only something that happens in elementary school. I definitely felt this way at times in college as well. I’m not sure when the shift happened, but at a certain point I think we stop believing in the myth of ‘normal’ (at least most people do… I hope).

      Always cool to hear nice things about Portland… :)

      Thanks for the comment Neal.

  8. How true this is, Emilie! The problem really comes to a head when you try to become who you really are and leave the conformity behind! It can be one of the toughest things you ever do to break free of the mold!

    • Emilie says:

      I totally agree. It often takes some serious restructuring of your lifestyle and relationships. It’s an exciting process once you get going though. Makes you feel like you’re really living.

      Thanks for stopping by the blog, Steve. I took a quick look at your site. Looks like you’re a bit of a ‘puttylike’ person as well! Lots of diverse interests. Very cool.

  9. Nisha says:

    Great post Emilie.
    I can appreciate your story when reflecting upon my own childhood and when watching my own children negotiate the world. While children can be brutal, because they are unfiltered by political correctness, social savvy, and emotional maturity – they are also surprisingly naive, in their actions. I have watched both of my kids remain locked in imaginary play while a more social encounter is available. It is beautiful to witness this kind of self assured occupation, much like you describe of yourself in grade 4.

    I think it is somewhere between grade 4 and adulthood when this becomes harder and harder to preserve. The desire to remain true to ones self is an important goal but, post young childhood, the pressures of the world slowly seep into the lives of children.

    Your writing and your pursuit of a puttylike community is wonderful. We all need people like you, reminding us of our flexibility and our capabilities. I would be a better adult and a better parent if I spent more time imagining all of the possibilities.

  10. Laura says:

    I agree with a lot of what is being said. There is a lot of bullying, and it does come with an expectation with fitting in –but I think the desire to be different is coming out as an attack against what is “expected”. While I agree that everyone should be able to chart their path free of discrimination, I would have appreciated a more clearly delineated “people who don’t do what they want and do what is expected even though they wanted something else.”

    Some people do want practical, and not even because it’s practical. When everyone else wants to be a rockstar or a tv writer or a famous actor –glam jobs in most peoples eyes– I think it does take a lot to say “Well I want to be an accountant. I like math”.. Sure it’s a 9-5 job most of the time, but they are pursuing their dreams as well.

    I think passages such as the excerpt from the original post (below) and related sentiments do exactly what you accuse the popular kids or society of imposing on you. By suggesting that doing what is expected is an act of conformity (resulting in unhappiness from pursuing the impractical) only further exacerbates the problem. While I recognize that the point of puttylike is for people who want to pursue a number of different activities, I don’t think it needs to simultaneously criticize people who have more expected/practical interests.

    Emilie and I went to school together. She has posted before on how she decided to step away from law and do other things –a decision of which I am fully supported. That said, I *am* still interested in doing law. Not because it is expected of me, and not because it is practical, but because it’s what I love and what I’ve always wanted to do. If I stop loving it, I plan to stop doing it. I have other interests that I have pursued and that I will continue to pursue, but that doesn’t mean that I have chosen to do what is practical because it is practical. I have chosen what is practical because that’s what gets me excited. –And isn’t that the whole reason we are supposed to be following these different interests? Sure this blog is about following new interests and doing multiple things, but isn’t the underlying purpose to be happy and not pressured into doing something that isn’t you? I find the excerpt below troublesome. To me, these sentiments (shared by many people I have spoken with in both “hipster” communities as well as new media communities) are equally bad, simply in the opposite direction.

    For someone born in ’84, “you’re a slave to the norm for choosing X” is simply the 2010 equivalent of the 90s schoolyard “you’re weird for pursuing Y”. Both of them are ascribing a “what you should be doing” –and neither of them, in my opinion, are productive, supportive, or acceptable.

    As stated initially, I don’t think this is necessarily what was intended by the piece, but I do think that if you are criticizing only the “practical” people who didn’t want that path for themselves, then that be more clearly delineated and driven home.

    As a result, most of us are terrified of standing out and claiming our place in the world. People will do what is expected of them. They will go to college because they should and work 9-5 at jobs that bore them, all to avoid having to reveal that part of themselves that might be a little different from everybody else. We are so afraid of being different.

    But slowly, a sort of quiet desperation will take hold. They’ll start to hate their lives and wonder what the point of it all is. They will have wasted years working unsatisfying jobs, telling themselves they had to ‘be practical’. All those dreams they had when they were kids and all those things they wanted to do with their lives? Ridiculous impractical fantasies and not the way you’re supposed to behave- like the kid who plays with vampires on the playground.

    • Emilie says:

      Hi Laura,

      I really appreciate your feedback. It’s a great example of thoughtfully and constructively delivered criticism, which is really nice! (and probably the only kind of criticism that anyone responds to/learns from… which coincidentally is the topic of an upcoming post. :)

      I hear what you’re saying. I think there’s a tendency in the non-conformity/lifestyle design blogosphere to conduct full frontal assaults on the status quo, perhaps unnecessarily sometimes.

      This tendency is probably due to years of resentment from being told repeatedly that we’re being impractical, selfish, naive, etc. Stuff I’ve heard from many people (and many of our classmates)…

      Not you though. You’re right. You’ve always been very supportive, which is awesome.

      I hope you know that I think going to law school, studying math, etc. is 100% valid if it’s what you truly long to do. (And I would DEFINITELY put you in that camp.) It’s all about motivation. Are you going to law school because it’s a personal goal of yours or because it’s a safe career choice and other people will be impressed? You could similarly ask: are you pursuing a career as a musician because it’s what you truly long to do or because you want to look cool? It’s the same. I agree.

      I’m sorry if I generalized or didn’t explain myself fully. (though I object to your use of the term ‘hipster’ and feel as though you might be generalizing a bit in your usage of that term… ;) Anyway, I think we are in agreement here.

      I forget sometimes that non-lifestyle design peep are reading. I don’t want to censor myself and constantly be worrying about who I might offend. But I will try to tread the line more carefully in the future.

      Thanks for the comment Laura.

  11. Brian Gerald says:

    HA! This post totally resonates with my inner nerd. Somehow I managed to be friends with lots of people all throughout school (elementary school on up). I was friends with the “cool” kids (and the geeky kids and at least a few loners) but recess was TERRIFYING. In elementary school, the cool “boys” played soccer and everyone else did their own thing. I had convinced myself I wasn’t good at sports (which is silly bc I’m pretty athletic and would go to play tennis and high jump competitely) so I rarely played. Or if I did I ran around and made sure I was never in a position to receive a pass. I remember most days hanging out with some kids on a playground NEAR the soccer field. And then after reccess, I would walk back to the building VIA the soccer field. As if I’d been playing all along. I wonder who I thought I was fooling.

    • Emilie says:

      Oh wow, I totally have a half-finished post about how I spent most of my life believing that I hated athletics- as though that’s just a part of who I am and there’s nothing I can do about it. HA

      I started running recently and I realized that I had picked up this false belief from childhood. It was only true because I believed it to be true. I love challenging false beliefs like this. It’s a recent obsession of mine. :)

  12. Susan says:

    Interesting reminds me of when I picked blue construction paper instead of pink. I was the only girl in kingergarden who picked blue. One of the girls sort of ridiculed me for it, but I was proud if my choice. I really didn’t like most of the girls.

    I just left a Broadway job. I could go on for years about this culture and what it’s Luke not to fit in.

    Interesting stuff here, thanks!

  13. Uli Kaiser says:

    This is a big story. Society sometimes embrace fringe people and sometimes not. In school not. At America has talent yes.

    I am 51 years now an still feel the pain from school and now enjoy the embrace.



  14. Miriam says:

    I was a weird child too. Teachers in kindergarten used to say that I took my time to do things and classworks, for them I was a bit slow. Even if my grandma still prises how good and calm I was, a pre-school girl who plays putting uncooked pasta on and off a kithchen scale, again and again, is not so common. I was lucky because I get to know other children, and then teenagers, who refused to conforme. They were and are my best friends.


  15. I am presently on my Holiday Break, taking some downtime, and trying to work on my business from the inside out–starting with me. I’ve been living in that “you must work from this box” mold, and yet if you look at my site, obviously, I’ve got the multipotentialite-thang going on. YOU just brought sharply into focus the source of the extreme depression I’ve been going through for the past two weeks, and if I could reach through this screen and hug you, I flipping would!!!!! I was the “weird child” my entire life. I also had Velcro shoes (weren’t Kangaroos the coolest things ever, especially if you couldn’t actually tie your shoelaces, even though you were in the fifth grade?) and rainbow leg warmers and a vampire obsession. And I am still firmly convinced I’m the best Princess Leia since Carrie Fisher! lol And my entire life, I was bullied, to the degree that I now suffer from unofficially diagnosed PTSD from those experiences (lemme tell ya, it’s SO much fun to raise a teenaged girl when you’re actually *terrified* of teenaged girls!). All of that has led me to where I’ve been the past two weeks: that headspace where you suddenly realize the “weird child” has grown into an equally “weird adult” who is trying to turn all of that “weirdness” into something marketable. Thank you so much for letting me know I’m not out here alone! Seriously–massive cyberhugs!

  16. guliz says:

    Hello Emilie,

    I am 35 and thank you to make me understand what’s wrong with me so far:)

    greetings from Turkey

  17. Cari says:

    Wow- I absolutely love this article! Browsing through YouTube this morning, I discovered your TED talk. I nodded vigorously through the whole thing! I’m a 10th grader in high school, and I feel like my district puts a huge emphasis on choosing a career pathway. We have to pick one interest and take electives that are directly tailored to it, and the whole system works well for my peers who want to be nurses, teachers, doctors, etc. But me? I love to debate, I love math, I love reading and writing, I love learning history, I love figuring out effective ways to interact with people, I love drawing and painting, and I love almost anything else that involves learning and creating. So many of my counselors, relatives, and adult figures in life have told me that I should be focusing on “picking my passion”, but most don’t believe me when I explain how I have MANY passions! Thank you for all of your writing on the subject; I’ve finally found a name for myself as a multipotentialite.

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